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Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25

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Journal of English for Academic Purposes

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Hidden challenges of tasks in an EAP writing textbook: EAL

graduate students' perceptions and textbook authors’
Yushiang Jou
National Taiwan University, No. 1, Sec. 4, Roosevelt Rd., Taipei 10617, Taiwan

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: English as an Additional language (EAL), with a plethora of materials for teaching academic
Received 17 June 2016 writing at the graduate and research levels, which typically takes the form of textbooks.
Received in revised form 9 August 2017 This study brings attention to an underrepresented aspect of EAP researchdEAL students'
Accepted 2 October 2017
reactions to textbook materials. Here one of the more influential graduate-level academic
writing textbooks has been Swales and Feak's Academic Writing for Graduate Students
(AWG) (2012). What so far has been largely lacking in the story of AWG are the voices from
the students' side of the desk, apart from those reported by instructors and reviewers.
Academic writing
Genre-oriented tasks
Using a semi-structured format, I interviewed eight EAL graduate students and brought
EAL graduate students their opinions to the co-authors for responses. The students in this study evaluated AWG's
genre-oriented tasks in mostly positive terms. However, not all of them benefited equally
from its tasks. Students' reflections in interviews revealed hidden challenges to its genre-
oriented tasks that have not been previously published nor disseminated in the EAP
research community. This study therefore offers some useful implications for genre-based
writing instruction and research, not just for AWG but also for many other textbooks
supporting EAL writers.
© 2017 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

The spread of English as the world's preeminent academic and research language (Hyland, 2006) has unsurprisingly given
rise to a massive increase in efforts to support all those students with English as an Additional language (EAL), often with a
special focus on academic and research writing. These supporting activities are many and manifold and include new courses,
new cadres of instructors, more attempts to provide EAP teacher education, more research into target genres, often using
specialized corpora, on-line support of various kinds, and a plethora of materials for teaching academic writing, both pro-
duced in-house and commercially available. This last typically takes the form of academic writing textbooks (e.g., Canseco,
2010; Swales & Feak, 2000, 2012), which have a venerable history going back to at least the 1970s (Bates & Dudley-Evans,
1976; Swales, 1971); in addition there have been occasional efforts to make the processes of writing such materials trans-
parent, as in the collections edited by Byrd (1995) and Harwood (2014).
As the field of EAP writing matured, attention began to be paid to the graduate and research student levels (e.g., Cheng,
2008; Flowerdew, 2015a; Kaufhold, 2015; Tardy, 2004, 2005). However, this study brings attention to an underrepresented
aspect of EAP writing textbooks and materials researchdEAL students’ reactions to textbooks and teaching materials. Despite

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1475-1585/© 2017 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
14 Y. Jou / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25

a perceived lack of research on this topic in the EAP literature, we have been able to learn from the broader language teaching
and educational literature that interactions between textbook writers and teachers contribute to curriculum development.
For example, Ziebarth et al. (2009) reported on a constructive dialogue between secondary mathematics teachers and authors
of curriculum materials as the materials were being developed. The teachers reacted to pilot materials and the authors
responded to teacher comments by adjusting and modifying some of their materials in an attempt to make them more
However, teachers' views on the usefulness of textbooks may differ from those of students'. Previous research (e.g.,
McGrath, 2006; Peacock, 1998) indicates that while students recognize the value of textbook activities, students and teachers
can hold differing views on which activities are more useful to them and how they are supportive. This potential divergence of
opinion about textbook activities has important pedagogical implications since these tasks often aim at different pedagogical
goals. For example, while open-ended tasks encourage students’ engagement in class discussion and active exploration for
alternative explanations (Osana, Lacroix, Tucker, & Desrosiers, 2006), close-ended ones (e.g., cloze and grammatical exercises)
are often form-focused rather than meaning-focused and therefore can hardly stimulate critical thinking nor constructive
peer interaction (Cho, Lee, & Jonassen, 2011; Lightbown & Spada, 2000). Although a conversation between textbook con-
sumers and authors may facilitate curriculum development, it remains underexplored how EAP writing curricular materials
are perceived by students within the context of teaching.
To probe how students are taking up key aspects of an EAP writing curriculum, this study investigates EAL students'
responses to an EAP textbook used in the graduate-level academic writing classroom and how well students' perceptions
align with textbook authors' goals. Here one of the more influential of these textbooks has been Swales and Feak's Academic
Writing for Graduate Students (AWG) (2012), which, after over 20 years since its debut in 1994, has reached a third edition and
has sold over 100,000 copies (Samraj, 2016). Like one or two other EAL academic writing textbooks (Ridley, 2012; Weissberg
& Buker, 1990), AWG has been able to penetrate the world of EAP research and scholarship, at least as indicated by the number
of citations received (in August 2017 over 1700 on Google Scholar). Its relatively wide and regular adoption internationally
would seem to derive from its genre orientation, its integration of research findings, its attention to selected lex-
icogrammatical and textual features (i.e. language focus sections), and the provision of a Commentary volume with guiding
principles and recommendations.
EAP writing practitioners have offered their own perspectives on AWG. For example, Ashton-Hay (2014) evaluated AWG's
tasks positively and noted that “each sentence is labelled in model texts and followed by focus questions so students can
analyse and discuss each text as a class, a small group, or self-access.” Along these lines, Coles (2008) argued that the revised
version of AWG rightly included “more discussion, and more genres while retaining the same user-friendly and insightful
analyses and exploitation of texts” (p. 136). Of course, there have been some important demurrals. Belcher argued for “a more
intellectually compelling social epistemic perspective” (1995, p. 176), and, Breeze (2005) contended that students with
advanced writing proficiency might “lack the time and patience to work systematically through a textbook of this kind.”
However, overall, AWG has been both a commercial and a critical success.
AWG is underpinned by Swales' genre theory, offering viable ways of converting the theory into genre-oriented tasks that
find their roots in Swales' seminal work Genre Analysis (Swales, 1990). In Genre Analysis, Swales' pedagogical bent was toward
consciousness-raising. Swales' genre-based approach is task-based, aiming to “focus student attention on rhetorical action
and on the organizational and linguistic means of its accomplishment” (p. 82). The valid use of Swales' approach has been
widely noted (e.g., Hyland, 2007; Tardy, 2006). Its success comes partially from genre-oriented tasks in which students
discuss, analyze, and evaluate language features and phraseology in target genres (Flowerdew, 2015b). However, Cheng
(2011) found that although his students were introduced to the framework of genre analysis, they sometimes interpreted
rhetorical moves and steps in ways that differed from prototypical genre expectations, which suggests that more attention
needs to be paid to students’ actual perceptions.
Since AWG has been widely used internationally, there may be student evaluations of AWG on course evaluation forms,
which are likely to have taken place in different contexts (ESL, EFL, and multilingual) and classrooms (pre-sessional and in-
sessional EAP writing courses). Yet, these student evaluations have not been made available to EAP researchers or dissem-
inated in the research community. Without such public scrutiny, it remains unclear how rigorous and informative these
student evaluations are. In consequence, what so far has been largely lacking in the story of AWG are the voices from the
students’ side of the desk, apart from comments reported by instructors. In this small-scale study conducted in the context of
an EAP course in the United States, I provide an opportunity for a subset of those student users to reflect upon their classroom
experiences of using AWG tasks in interviews and for the authors of AWG to respond to student opinions. The student
participants were first-year MA students in education, with different L1 backgrounds. Despite their linguistic diversity, they
presented similar levels of advanced proficiency in English. As will be seen, student perceptions can be somewhat different to
those expressed by instructors and reviewers. This study therefore offers some useful implications for genre-based writing
instruction and research, not just for AWG but perhaps also for many other textbooks supporting EAL writers.

2. The genre-oriented tasks in AWG

As Swales (1995) puts it, textbooks “may consolidate and apply recent scholarship, incorporate new research findings, and
generate interesting new topics worth further study” (p. 3). Based on the latest research, particularly corpus-based findings,
the third edition of AWG explores innovative ways for presenting EAP research and corpus studies to writing instructors and
Y. Jou / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25 15

students (Swales & Feak, 2012). While maintaining some parts of its predecessors, the third edition AWG includes examples
from a corpus of upper-level student papers, among other corpus findings, and expands from roughly 250 pages (1st edition)
to its current length of 418 pages (3rd edition). During the textbook revision process, other active participants were hidden
from view but were also responsible for extensive revising and the longer length of the book, including reviewers, the
acquisition editor, the developmental editor, and the copy editor (Feak & Swales, 2014).
Major goals for their revision project included “creating new material while maintaining the essence of the old; finding a
balance between creativity and familiarity; and working within three non-negotiable aspects of the previous editions, namely
the number, order, and focus of each chapter” (Feak & Swales, 2014, p. 309). Overall, AWG follows the original organization
and consists of eight units.
In each unit, a variety of relevant tasks are introduced to scaffold graduate students’ knowledge of academic writing and
help students approach the focal genre and the concepts relative to it. Drawing on multi-disciplinary texts, each unit offers
various awareness-raising tasks in which genre, task, and discourse community are repeatedly linked together as a means to
help graduate students appreciate how and why common linguistic conventions are used in academic writing to achieve
specific rhetorical effects. Instead of being prescriptive and defining what a disciplinary community should or should not do in
a particular genre, these tasks frequently invite student discussion and reflection, sometimes based on student analysis of
linguistic features of texts from their own subfield.

3. Methodology

3.1. Research questions and design

This study was guided by the following research questions: What are EAL students' perceptions of the tasks in AWG? What
are the authors’ responses to student opinions? What are the implications for EAP writing materials?
A qualitative research design involving interviews was used to answer the research questions. Interviews have been used
to examine EAP students' perceptions of their learning experiences (e.g., James, 2010; Leki, 2006; Morton, Storch, &
Thompson, 2015). This design was selected as a means to provide an emic view of participants’ “knowledge, views, un-
derstandings, interpretations, [and] experiences” (Mason, 2002, p. 63), therefore producing rich data answering the open-
ended research questions. A semi-structured format (e.g. Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2000) was used in efforts to provide
the participants with opportunities to voice their beliefs, experiences, and other issues that they considered relevant.

3.2. Research context

This study was conducted at a large research-intensive university in the American Midwest. The total student enrollment
of the university was nearly 40,000, with approximately 15,000 students in graduate programs and a growing population of
EAL students who met the standardized English language requirements for university entrance (with a minimum overall
score of 84 out of 120 on the TOEFL). The student participants of this study enrolled in a 15-week, three-credit academic
writing course in the School of Education (course title: Academic Writing for Graduate Students in Education) that was taught
by the author, who had six years experience teaching EAP writing in both pre-sessional and in-sessional courses. This course
was neither required for admission to the university nor by their degree programs. The students were self-motivated to enroll
in this course as elective credits toward their degrees.
Different from many EAP writing courses using AWG with pre-sessional students who have not begun their degree
programs, this academic writing course was designed in support of in-sessional MA students in education. The goals of this
course were to help participants develop a better understanding of the functional features of academic genres in English as
well as provide practice opportunities for graduate students in education to improve their writing in the context of educa-
tional research and practice. This course covered only the first six units of AWG because the students were MA students who
were not yet being prepared to undertake empirical research of their own (materials covered in units seven and eight).
Previous studies on teaching EAP writing (e.g., Charles, 2012; Cheng, 2008, 2011) suggest that EAL students benefited from
examining their own disciplinary contexts. Following their findings, AWG was used with a particular bent toward writing in
the social sciences and as a companion of this course. Educationally focused assignments were implemented in the interest of
inquiring into writing in educational research and practice. Throughout the course, the students were required to submit six
writing assignments. The first five assignments (definition, summary, problem-solution text, data commentary, and critique)
revolved around a New York Times article Teaching Is Not a Business and were connected in ways that prepared them for
writing an analytic memo at the end of the course in which they defined key terms, summarized an educational problem,
stated their position, and proposed viable solutions. In this analytic memo addressing an educational issue, the students
assumed that they were writing for teachers and instructional coaches for a school improvement team meeting in order to
initiate discussion aimed at addressing this issue.

3.3. Participants

The student participants were first-year MA students in education, with different L1 backgrounds and majors (see Table 1
for their backgrounds). It was the first time for these students to attend an English-medium institution of higher education.
16 Y. Jou / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25

Table 1
EAL graduate student participants’ backgrounds.

Pseudonym First language MA program Prior disciplinary experience

Ali Arabic Digital Media and Education Humanities
An Chinese Teaching and Learning Humanities
Chen Chinese Teaching and Learning Social Sciences
Faustino Spanish Teaching and Learning Humanities
Ji-yoon Korean Educational Leadership and Policy Social Sciences
Kwong Chinese Educational Leadership and Policy Social Sciences
Makoto Japanese Higher Education Social Sciences
Mei Chinese Digital Media and Education Humanities

Both of the AWG authors participated in this study. The first author was John Swales, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics. The
second author was Christine Feak, Senior Lecturer of EAP and co-editor of English for Specific Purposes. In addition to co-
authoring AWG, they have also published a number of EAP writing textbooks, including, among others, English in Today's
Research World and Telling a Research Story: Writing a Literature Review.

3.4. Data collection

In efforts to ensure that data were collected in an unbiased and ethical manner, the research design, data collection and
analysis procedures were reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) prior to the implementation of the
study. Data were gathered through individual semi-structured face-to-face interviews over three weeks.
The interviews were audio-taped. The kinds of questions asked partially hinged on individual participants' responses and
follow-up questions were asked to solicit more insights into a particular experience of a task that students had articulated and
authors had responded to. For example, when a student identified a particular challenge he or she experienced when doing a
task, such questions as “Tell me more about the difficulty you encountered in this task. What makes you think so? What are your
suggestions?” were asked to make sure that the student's views were fully articulated. The participants were encouraged to
bring in relevant issues or experiences meaningful to them.

3.4.1. Student interviews

As the teacher of the course, I orally provided the students with sufficient information about the study in the last class
meeting, explained the research procedures, and recruited the students as participants. Their participation was voluntary and
irrelevant to their performance in this course. All eight students who enrolled in the class volunteered to participate. The
student interviews were conducted immediately after the end of the course, when I assumed that their perceptions of AWG
tasks would still be fresh in their minds. I met with each student individually in a small conference room in the School of
Education building.
Each student was interviewed once by me, using a set of questions (see interview schedule in Appendix A) designed to
elicit students’ perceptions of the tasks they had completed in class. In the first six units of AWG, there are 125 Tasks. This
course covered 46 tasks related to the social sciences, many of which were assigned as homework. The students tackled 14
tasks as classroom activities. During the interviews, they commented on the same 14 tasks in depth and detail. The interviews
ranged in length from 38 to 62 min, with an average of 47 min.
Questions guiding the student interviews in talking about their experiences were: What did you learn from this task? Could
you talk about your experience of doing this task in class? Did you think this task was helpful to you? Why? Why not? Did you
encounter any difficulties when doing this task? Why? Why not? What would you suggest the authors to revise for better classroom

3.4.2. Author interviews

After interviewing the student participants, I brought their opinions and concerns to the co-authors. The aim of author
interviews was to develop an emic view of the issues under study. I recruited the co-authors via email. I provided them with
sufficient information about my study. Both volunteered to participate and were willing to provide their views about student
comments. I interviewed the co-authors separately (one lasting 30 and the other 53 min) in their offices for insights from the
designers (see Appendix A for interview schedule for the co-authors).
I interviewed them in order to first reveal their rationale for designing these genre-oriented tasks. Further, in order to learn
about their comments on student opinions and responses to students' perceptions, during the interviews, I orally summarized
common themes identified in student interviews and went over each one of them with the co-authors. Questions guiding
the author interviews were: When you designed AWG tasks, did you think these tasks would work well for EAL graduate students
in the social sciences? Why? Why not? What was the pedagogical approach you adopted when designing these tasks? Why?
What do you think about students’ opinions of this task? Why? What do you think about their perceived challenges of doing this
task? Why?
Y. Jou / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25 17

3.5. Data analysis

Data analysis began after data collection was completed. All interviews were listened to repeatedly and transcribed
verbatim.1 To analyze the data, I followed thematic analysis procedures (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The data were coded
inductively (Auerbach, 2003) to search for recurring themes, which was an iterative process. I and a department colleague
experienced in analyzing qualitative data independently coded each of student and author interview transcripts and
developed coding categories in efforts to compare the categorization (Burnard, 1991). We compared our codings and pro-
duced preliminary coding schemes (one for student interviews and one for author ones). Then, we used the preliminary
schemes to code two student and both author interview transcripts, reaching 80% agreement. We discussed our codings and
resolved the disagreements through a detailed discussion, resulting in revised coding schemes (see Appendix B for interview
The coding was then validated through intra-rater analysis, which afforded me the opportunity to address potential bias in
my analytical process (Cresswell, 1998). One month after my coding all the interview transcripts using the revised coding
schemes, I reviewed and re-categorized all the transcripts. I compared and contrasted the coding decisions I made one month
earlier with the same data. Next, I established inter-rater reliability by having the department colleague code three student
and both author interview transcripts, achieving 90% agreement. Disagreements were resolved through a follow-up
Emergent themes identified from student interviews were: (1) understandings of discourse community (2) un-
derstandings of rhetorical actions (3) challenges of open-ended tasks and (4) interpretations of close-ended tasks. Themes
identified from author interviews were: (1) perspectives on AWG tasks for social science students (2) perspectives on
rhetorical consciousness-raising (3) responses to students' perceived challenges of open-ended tasks and (4) responses to
students’ perceptions of close-ended tasks.

4. Findings

4.1. Student interviews

4.1.1. Understandings of discourse community

Students' interviews showed their awareness of audience and communicative purpose, two key aspects of the discourse
community concept. For example, five of the eight students reported that Task 24 in Unit One (An Approach to Academic
Writing) was a novel and useful task that they had never seen before, which helped them become cognizant of the role that
audience played. Located at the end of this unit to bring together students' thinking about the concept of ‘positioning’, this
task required that students read a student draft of a short discussion of earthquakes, then discuss the instructor's comments
in groups, and finally decide whether these comments were reasonable or not. Kwong said that:
Excerpt 1 (Kwong)
I think positioning was most helpful because you are supposed to take the perspective of the reader. We needed to go
through every comment and see if these comments are reasonable from the reader's perspective. When you want your
paper to be seen in a certain way, what you want is that your reader to be on your side. If you receive their critiques, you
need to know whether they are reasonable or unreasonable. This is really useful because you have to get into the
perspectives of the reader. You have to take a stance.
This task seems to have drawn Kwong's attention to the key concept of audience. As Kwong indicated, she became
cognizant of audience and considered this ‘positioning’ essential to understanding how a reader might evaluate her writing.
This task helped her see the importance of reader engagement in the success of crafting an argument. However, what Kwong
articulated about positioning seems somewhat at odds with the authors' characterization. Swales and Feak describe “posi-
tioning” as “the means by which you create in writing a credible image as a competent member of your chosen discipline” (p.
1). They see positioning as involving such six components as audience, purpose, organization, style, flow, presentation, rather
than as just involving audience.
In addition, six students reported the usefulness of knowing communicative purposes from AWG tasks more generally. For
example, Mei responded:
Excerpt 2 (Mei)
What I liked about the tasks is that they made me think about the purpose of writing. Really, it is not just what you
write and how you write, but who you are and what you want to do with the text. When I was an undergraduate, I was

Transcription conventions: student participants were provided with pseudonyms that maintain their gender and ethnicity; AWG text quoted in dialog
in italics; stressed words in CAPITALS; pauses 1 s or less indicated by ‘,’; pauses more than 1 s by ‘.’; a rising vocal pitch or intonation indicated by ‘?’;
transcription comments in brackets.
18 Y. Jou / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25

expected to write. You know you sink and you swim. It was kind of copy style without thinking about why. But when it
comes to graduate writing, you want to be more careful because this is not mid-term exam anymore. You are going to
produce meaningful texts that reflect on you as an individual in an academic field.
While Kwong's understanding of positioning was reader-oriented, Mei's use of “who you are” suggests her awareness of
the writer. As Mei indicated, AWG tasks consistently encouraged her to think about communicative purposes from the
writer's perspective. Mei considered communicative purposes as an important means for writers to align themselves as
legitimate members with “an academic field,” which demonstrates her awareness of discourse community. In all, some AWG
tasks seem to have raised Kwong and Mei's consciousness of such key concepts of discourse community as audience, stance,
and communicative purposes.

4.1.2. Understandings of rhetorical actions

Many students articulated their knowledge of how rhetorical actions were accomplished on the organizational level. For
example, six discussed Task 13 in Unit Three (Problem, Process, and Solution), in which students were required to “improve the
flow of ideas for the process descriptions by adding a time adverbial, linking passive, or using an -ed participle” (p. 127). Chen
commented that:
Excerpt 3 (Chen)
Task 13 is great for us to practice the flow of ideas, which makes us to be aware that the structure of a paragraph is not
the simple piling up of sentences and there are certain skills to connect the sentences. In fact, the sentences are not
isolated in a paragraph and they are inherently related with each other instead.
This task seems to have focused Chen's attention to the flow of ideas in writing and to how ‘flow’ is achieved through
certain text structuring patterns. As Chen said, he became conscious of the rhetorical role that coherence plays in structuring a
paragraph. Chen's comment shows his understanding of how rhetorical actions could be realized organizationally.
Some students also discussed how rhetorical actions were accomplished linguistically. For example, four talked about Task
10 in Unit One, which lists a number of stylistic features and conventions of academic writing in English. Faustino stated that:
Excerpt 4 (Faustino)
I checked every single one of those. It seems to me that everything in here is US academic writing, because in Spanish,
some of these things are reversed. The Spanish academic writing in general, I came from the Humanities, uses sub-
ordinate clauses more. So your sentences in Spanish academic writing are longer before you finally get to a period.
That is what its style is like. It is very common in Spanish. Sometimes it is looked up on as a good style. So I think
Spanish is trying to show complexities of thoughts through complexities of syntax, whereas English has to show clarity
of thought through clarity of sentence structure.
This task seems to have raised Faustino's awareness of key features of academic English. Faustino even did a comparison
between English and his mother tongue, Spanish, to explain why some stylistic features listed in this task were the other way
around in academic writing in Spanish. In fact, his closing sentence is definitely thought-provoking.
In addition to the interview data, one student also commented in the anonymous course evaluations that “This course is
very helpful to make my writing flow naturally and it also helps me acquire the kind of sensitivity of language choice.”
Although this student did not specify a task, his or her comment indeed reflected the affordances of more nuanced ap-
proaches to understanding rhetorical actions that AWG has adopted.

4.1.3. Challenges of open-ended tasks

A distinctive feature of AWG is that many tasks do not provide ‘correct’ answers. This seems to have caused lingering
uncertainty in many of the students I interviewed. For example, four of them talked about this constraint they had
encountered in Unit Two, a unit of general-specific and specific-general text structures. Ali commented on Task 21, which
contains seven open-ended questions on organizational, rhetorical, and linguistic aspects of a text (e.g., Has the author made a
connection between the statue and the historical/cultural context? Do you think this is the author's overall purpose? Or is it mainly
to engage in a formal analysis of the work so as to offer a fresh look at it? Is it to raise a social issue? Is the goal to discuss how the
artist's life influenced the art?). He noted that:
Excerpt 5 (Ali)
For some other tasks like this one, the textbook authors try to get us to read this paragraph or text and ask some
questions to help us analyze the organization or strategy that the writer used. When we discussed the questions in
class, I felt there is always a little of room for ambiguity or controversy as to what is the best answer. This task is really
good but to go through these questions can be too time-consuming, especially in class. I mean it is impossible to cover
all of them in class. So, this could be assigned as an after-class exercise. However, because we were not seeking for a
definite answer in this task, this kind of open-ended questions will be more useful in class discussion. But if the
instructor covers too much in the class, then the students might miss the focus that is really important in this task.
Y. Jou / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25 19

As AWG has adopted student-centered genre pedagogy (Swales & Feak, 2012), the design of open-ended tasks seems to
have been a means to sensitize EAL writers to genre features by having them reflect on different linguistic and rhetorical
choices. In actuality, however, this feature seems to have made some of them be concerned about not knowing the answers.
Because the answer may vary based on students’ professional experiences, this inherent uncertainty may lead to time-
consuming confusion. In fact, there are many tasks in AWG that include seemingly too many questions for students to
touch base on equally in an adequate way in class.
Another challenge reported by the students was a lack of sufficient contextual information in some close-ended tasks. For
example, six commented on Task 8 in Unit Five (Writing Summaries). This task prompt reads: Some reporting verbs are less
objective than others. Can you identify which verbs in the table seem to be objective and which verbs have the potential to be
evaluative? In the table, the students read nine reporting verbs (describe, recommend, claim, assume, contend, propose, theorize,
support, examine), next to which were a column of objective ones and the other of evaluative ones. The range of student
responses within this task illustrates their struggles. For example, Makoto said:
Excerpt 6 (Makoto)
We were asked to determine whether it is objective or evaluative. These are typical words that everyone uses
in academic writing. People will take a lot of them for granted. I mean this allows me to look at the verbs I would
use. Am I being evaluative? Am I being objective? It is really a good exercise to think about my writing. But it gave
me a hard time to determine which is evaluative and objective because I don't know when and how it is used in
While the value of this task was recognized by Makoto, she was challenged by a lack of context that she could refer to as
she attempted to appreciate the evaluative-objective distinction. Resonating with Makoto's comment, An added that:
Excerpt 7 (An)
After being introduced to various reporting verbs and their frequency, Task 8 asks us to tell which reporting verbs are
less objective than others. We did not have a consensus in every word. For one it is out of context, for another, this idea
of being objective and evaluative is new to me. The book did not talk about when to use those objective reporting verbs
and when to use those evaluative ones and why?
While these reporting verbs were not new to An, the idea of being evaluative and objective was. A lack of sufficient
contextual information presented an added layer of challenge for An as she was learning about this new rhetorical character
of reporting verbs. Sharing Makoto and An's observations, Kwong provided a reason for the need of context, who commented:
Excerpt 8 (Kwong)
It is hard to think of objective or evaluative. I think contend is objective but I also think it is evaluative. It can really be
both. We need a context to decide if these words are objective or evaluative. It is strange to think of a word without a
While Kwong also called for a context, she illustrated that “contend” was a borderline case that could be both. Echoing this
view, Faustino added that:
Except 9 (Faustino)
A lot of these can be both. For example, support can be used in different ways to show either objective or evaluative. Like
claim has negative connotation. Otherwise, you will just use “he says.” We don't have a context here. There is a lot of
room for debate. Although I know these words and use them all the time, but in academic writing you have to be very
careful with the words or someone can misunderstand you because the only thing you present is your text. You cannot
use intonation to let people know what you mean.
Faustino acknowledged the importance of using these reporting verbs felicitously in writing. However, he pointed out that
insufficient contextual information gave rise to a lack of consensus in group discussion since many of these reporting verbs
could construe both objective and evaluative meanings, contingent on the context in which they were embedded. Reporting
another difficulty also stemming from a lack of context, Mei commented that:
Excerpt 10 (Mei)
This was totally new to me because I did not know evaluative verbs before. This task did not have correct answers but
required our personal opinions that were useful in group discussion. Even though I think I know enough vocabulary,
there are very subtle differences in terms of their meanings. For example, claim and contend, what is the difference? I
had difficulty differentiating them in the table. Maybe it is better to discuss them in the text.
Mei was challenged by this new concept that required her ability to appreciate the “subtle differences” in the vocabulary
she already knew. Mei argued that the evaluative meanings of these verbs were obscure to her when they were listed in
isolation in a table. Chen echoed this observation, saying that:
20 Y. Jou / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25

Excerpt 11 (Chen)
This task is really difficult for me. I need to know the nuanced difference among these verbs to be able to tell which is
objective and which is evaluative. Although I know the dictionary meanings of those verbs, the nuanced difference
among them remains fairly vague for me. Because there is no clear-cut criterion provided in this task, I have to
speculate. I need more context to understand why.
While Chen, like the other students, knew the dictionary meaning of these verbs, the “nuanced difference among these
verbs” remained opaque to him. A lack of criterion and context presented real challenges for him, thereby inviting speculation
about the objective-evaluative difference. As indicated by the six students, they wrestled with the rhetorical character of
reporting verbs for many reasons, but mainly because these verbs were insufficiently contextualized. Since this particular
aspect of meaning potential enabled by reporting verbs requires students’ attention to context, a lack of contextual infor-
mation appears to have prevented the students from fully appreciating the objective-evaluative distinction.

4.1.4. Interpretations of close-ended tasks

There are some tasks in AWG that require students to fill in the blanks (with closed-ended questions). This type of task was
interpreted by some students as a purely grammatical/vocabulary exercise. For example, four students discussed Task 20 in
Unit One, which reads: Choose a noun to complete the second sentence of each set of sentences. More than one answer may be
possible. Students’ perceptions of this task illustrate their understandings of what this task affords. An commented:
Excerpt 12 (An)
I think it is quite easy, but it does not mean these words are equally easy to all of the students I guess. But it is quite
simple to most of us. I remember some of us complained about the time spent on doing this because these words are
not new to us.
An indicated that the words she was required to fill in the blanks were not new to her. Hence, she felt that this task was not
worth her time. Echoing this view, Ali added:
Excerpt 13 (Ali)
This is pretty dry because I know all these vocabularies already. This is something I do not think I really need. The
answers seem quite obvious and there was not much to explain why it was. It wasn't challenging to figure out the right
word. Because I thought this is more related to word choice, I think it would be more useful to become a language focus
section and something that we can refer to, instead of tasks that we work on.
Ali perceived this task simply as a vocabulary test. In consequence, he, like An, did not see this task as a useful one. Ali
recommended that this task be a language-focus section, rather than a task for students to work on in the classroom. His
response suggests that he thought the textbook authors wanted them to learn about these particular nouns in this task.
Similarly, Makoto also offered a suggestion as to how this task could better serve them. She said:
Excerpt 14 (Makoto)
You need to fill in the blanks with appropriate nouns. To me, maybe it is one of the simplest things in the book because I
know these words. I think this can be developed in a more effective way. For example, instead of being assigned these
sentences with a single blank, it might be better if we create sentences using these nouns. This way we can learn more
about how to write.
Sharing a similar mind with Ali, Makoto made a suggestion that this task be a sentence-creating activity so that she could
practice how to use these nouns in her writing. Neither Ali nor Makoto noticed the underlying grammatical structure in this
task. Further, Ji-yoon questioned the applicability of this task. She commented:
Excerpt 15 (Ji-yoon)
Task 20 required us to fill in the blanks with appropriate nouns. For example [pointing to question two], here we have
increase, influx and invasion, jump, rise. I mean I get that these five words are kind of similar but not the same. But I am
not sure how much I will remember after doing this task. If I needed to use these kinds of words in my own writing, I
still needed to go to a dictionary and check it. There are many similar tasks in other units as well. In other words, this
task is not something I could take away by simply finishing these questions.
Ji-yoon specifically discussed the second question in this task (which reads: Early in September each year, the population of
Ann Arbor suddenly increases by about 25,000 as students arrive for the new academic year. This _______ changes the character of
the town in a number of ways). She argued that this task lacked immediate applicability since she was unable to know how to
use these nouns in her writing merely by completing this task. Apparently, she seems to have overlooked the similarity
among the sentences in this task (i.e. This þ noun). The other three students also seem to have missed part of the value of
doing this task, perceiving it simply as a vocabulary selection exercise without being aware of the grammatical pattern
embedded in this task.
Y. Jou / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25 21

4.2. Author interviews

4.2.1. Perspectives on AWG tasks for social science students

When I asked the co-authors how they anticipated the usefulness of AWG tasks for social science students, both believed
most AWG tasks should be fairly accessible to them. For example, Swales commented that:
Excerpt 16
I think there is not much in the book that is inappropriate for social science students. I think the kind of statistical data
are fairly elementary that social science students deal with all the time. I think it would be much less suitable for
mathematics students and perhaps even physics students. I think for the social sciences, they would be a fairly ideal
group of users. They are the central audience for the book. But I think they are typically not very nuanced in their
writing. They are not very good highlighting what they need to highlight and so on.
In light of genre expectations expected in the social sciences, Swales believed the tasks in AWG more suitable for graduate
students in the social sciences than those in the physical sciences such as mathematics and physics. However, as we have seen,
this group of students mostly had a social science background and was starting graduate work in education, but even so, not
everything turned out to be smooth sailing.

4.2.2. Perspectives on rhetorical consciousness-raising

When ask about the pedagogical approach they adopted when designing the tasks, both authors explained their genre
orientation and pedagogical aim of rhetorical consciousness-raising. For example, Feak stated that:
Excerpt 17
We were always focused on helping students to notice things. On average, when students read an academic text, they
are always reading for content and they are not really noticing anything about how something is written, anywhere
from vocabulary to grammar to organization. So, one of our main goals is always trying to get that idea of audience
and purpose and strategy. We would like them to become mini applied linguists without actually suggesting
that they have to do whole lot of research and have a really deep understanding of how one goes about analyzing
As Feak suggested, AWG tasks were designed to bring students' attention to linguistic and organizational facets of writing.
Their approach to rhetorical consciousness-raising was undergirded by the idea of “audience and purpose.” Having students
actually analyze texts they read was a strategic way to make students cognizant of audience and purpose. What Feak
described resonated with Kwong and Mei's perceptions of AWG tasksdwhich helped them be aware of audience and
communicative purposes. AWG tasks seem to have successfully realized the authors' pedagogical approach to rhetorical

4.2.3. Responses to students’ perceived challenges of open-ended tasks

Responding to students’ desire for correct or best answers in open-ended tasks, Feak provided a rationale to not provide
definite answers for many of the AWG tasks. She asserted that:
Excerpt 18
So much of writing is a matter of choice. When you are working on writing, the more frequent answer almost always is
IT DEPENDS [her emphasis]. We do not have an answer because there is so much disciplinary difference out there. You
just can't say that is how it is. That also gives students a sense that writing is like a formula, like calculating the slope of
a curve. If I know the formula, then I am gonna get the right answer every time. But writing is not that way.
Along these lines, Swales added that:
Excerpt 19
The Commentary2 provides suggested answers to most of those tasks that are fairly close-ended. The open-ended ones
we don't provide answers but guidance as to which way they should go. Well, you have two alternatives. You can do a
textbook that just has closed tasks, but I am not sure that is necessarily the best way to go. We can stimulate students'
imagination and creativity within the context of whatever is being discussed. And the fact that they have written
something in response, even if it is not assessed or corrected given feedback on, that is still a valuable exercise, in terms
of practice in writing and awareness-raising of genre.

Commentary for Academic Writing for Graduate Students (3rd edition) offers, among other things, rhetorical insights into some of the issues and guide
the readers to read AWG such as ‘general notes’ that guide instructors and students to use a unit effectively. It also provides recommendations for some of
the ‘discussive’ questions that supposedly with ambiguous, if any, answers.
22 Y. Jou / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25

As Feak stated, writing was about choice and due to disciplinary differences, this choice varied. She argued that writing
issues do not always have ‘the right answer’ since it is not an exact science. In this vein, Swales suggested that users take
advantage of the Commentary and its recommended guidance. He also responded that they did not provide answers for open-
ended tasks for a reasondnot to stifle students' imagination and creativity in classroom discussion.
Another issue raised by the students was a lack of context in some tasks. Both Swales and Feak recognized the importance
of providing sufficient contextual information for certain tasks. For example, Feak responded:
Excerpt 20
A context always helps. Absolutely. There is no question about it. If a student has some questions about context, it
doesn't take much time to go on Google Scholar and find an instance where someone has in their published paper or
other kinds of paper. So why not bring something of your own to give that context that students need. I mean just giving
someone a list of words in isolation is not always the best. But again teachers have to also be part of the course
While Feak considered a context essential for students to do the tasks, she made useful suggestions to address this issue by
encouraging teachers and students to supplement their disciplinary materials in the sense that their own texts may best
contextualize the lexis in their field. After all, AWG tasks should be used as a companion of a writing course, rather than the
only source of knowledge (more of teacher involvement is discussed in the Discussion).

4.2.4. Responses to students’ perceptions of close-ended tasks

In response to students' perceptions of close-ended tasks, Swales indicated that their purpose of designing this task (Task
20 in Unit One) was to bring students’ attention to a target cohesive pattern involving this þ summary phrase (cf. Flowerdew,
2003: signaling nouns). In other words, this sort of task was expected to sensitize students to the workings of certain
rhetorical or linguistic patterns. He pointed to Task 8 in Unit Two to further exemplify his point. He said:
Excerpt 21
For example, an axis is an imaginary line about which a body is said to rotate. The task says complete the definitions by
inserting an appropriate preposition, but what it is trying to get across secretly is the pattern of this kind of relative
clauses. Prepositional choices are not difficult, but that is not the purpose. The purpose I think is to give telling ex-
amples of this pattern so they recognize how it works and when they can use it. So don't be deceived by appearances. It
looks simple but in fact its purpose is not finding the right preposition.
Here, there seems to have been a discrepancy between the authors' rationale for certain close-ended tasks and student
perceptions of them. As Feak noted in excerpt 20, teachers play an integral role in classroom implementation of AWG tasks
and therefore need to help EAL students see the real purpose of this task. To make the most of what these close-ended tasks
offer, perhaps more explicit instruction on what students should be aware of could help them better appreciate the value of
doing this type of task, thereby raising students' consciousness of Swales and Feak's ‘secret’ agenda.

5. Discussion

Not surprisingly given the textbook's reputation, the EAL graduate students in this study evaluated AWG's genre-oriented
tasks in mostly positive terms. However, not all the student participants benefited equally from its tasks. While Ashton-Hay
(2014) and Osana et al. (2006) argued that open-ended tasks support students' engagement in group discussion, this study
unveiled an underlying problem of such tasks in the EAP writing classroom. In keeping with Basturkmen's (2010) observation,
some student participants reported that the inherent inconclusiveness of open-ended questions was time-consuming in
To improve the design of open-ended tasks in EAP writing textbooks more generally, we need to know which kinds of
“discussive” questions best cater to the needs of social science students, and students in other disciplinary fields. In classroom
practice, what would be time-efficient approaches to implementing open-ended questions that, given their inherent
inconclusiveness, would allow students to reflect adequately on linguistic and rhetorical choices most relevant to their
disciplinary fields? In light of these tasks that have a less controllable text-task relationship, instructors can supplement self-
designed open-ended questions as needed to help their students become cognizant of selected linguistic, rhetorical, and
organizational strategies for writing target part-genres in their chosen sub-fields, and, of course, this is a possibility for users
of all EAP writing textbooks, not just AWG.
Swales (1990) aimed to sensitize “students to rhetorical effects, and to the rhetorical structures that tend to recur in genre-
specific texts” (p. 213). In AWG, close-ended tasks (e.g., vocabulary tasks) are one of the activities leveraged to sensitize EAL
students to selected rhetorical structures. This study has not only revealed some challenges the students experienced, but it
has also unveiled some of their tacit perceptions that might be responsible for the differences between their uptake and co-
authors’ stated aims with those tasks.
While Swales and Feak are linguists who view language descriptively and aim to equip students with an awareness of
noticing language features and patterns, many students in this study seem to have an ingrained view of seeing language
prescriptively. Their wish for “correct” answers evidences their prescriptive minds and “standard language ideologies”
Y. Jou / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25 23

(De Costa, 2010; Lippi-Green, 1994). As a result, a lack of context with regard to the reporting verbs ‘hindered’ them from
landing on a correct judgment of objective/evaluative reporting verbs. Although the students professed to understand such
key elements of positioning as purpose, audience, stance, etc., they still seem to have committed to their right vs wrong binary
thinking when it comes to specific language choices. In fact, the students' prescriptive approach to language makes it hard for
them to grasp the consciousness-raising purpose of those tasks and to see language choices in terms of positioning and
In addition, the students were critical of the perceived rote and obvious choices of single lexical items following “this.”
However, they did not appear to transfer the lessons about stance to micro-level language choices in nouns (some were
neutral/summative while others interpretative/evaluative). While Swales and Feak were drawing students’ attention to
specific choices in language that enabled academic writers to express stance, the students did not seem to understand that
these tasks aimed to give them new metalinguistic concepts for thinking, reflecting, talking about specific language choices in
meaningful ways.
Admittedly, the number of MA student participants in this study was small, as well as being all drawn from a social science
field. No concerted attempt was made to probe these students’ prior knowledge or attitudes about academic writing or
English more generally, but, of course, as teacher of the course, I learned about their previous experiences and beliefs. It
should also be noted that while retrospective interviews provide rich information, there are limitations characteristic of
retrospective accounts, such that the participants may be encouraged to perform certain roles to interpret rather than report
their experiences, thereby creating the knowledge they purport to be unearthing (Tomlinson, 1984). In the case of this study,
that the students were being critical of some AWG tasks could possibly be that they believed they were expected to assume a
more critical role in the context of retrospective interview.
This study suggests that we need more ‘bottom-up’ consumer/user research rather than only relying on ‘top-down’
product analysis by experts. It may be necessary that EAP researchers further explore students' views of textbook tasks and
perhaps language more generally. In this way, we may be able to provide more detailed feedback for publishers and textbook
authors (Harwood, 2005), thus better supporting writing instructors, especially novice ones, and go some way toward
reducing student uncertainties and perplexities.


I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers and Editor Paul Thompson for their incisive comments on earlier versions of this
manuscript. I would also like to express my sincere thanks to John Swales and Christine Feak for their invaluable input.

Appendix A

Interview schedule for student participants

I went over the first six units of AWG to learn about students’ experiences of each task they did in class. During the in-
terviews, students were encouraged to bring in any relevant issues or experiences meaningful to them. Questions asked in
talking about each task the students did were:

1. What did you learn from this task? Could you talk about your experience of doing this task in class?
2. Did you think this task was helpful to you? Why? Why not?
3. Did you encounter any difficulties when doing this task? Why? Why not?
4. What would you suggest the authors to revise for better classroom use?

Interview schedule for co-authors

I orally summarized the themes emerged from student interviews. I went over each one of them with the co-authors
individually. During the interviews, they were encouraged to bring in any relevant issues meaningful to them. Questions
asked in talking about their rationale for designing AWG's genre-oriented tasks and their comments on student opinions

1. When you designed AWG tasks, did you think these tasks would work well for EAL graduate students in the social sci-
ences? Why?
2. So, what was the pedagogical approach you adopted when designing these tasks? Why?
[questions asked in talking about each of the student perceptions]
3. What do you think about students' opinions of this task? Why?
4. What do you think about their perceived challenges of doing this task? Why?
24 Y. Jou / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 30 (2017) 13e25

Appendix B

Student interview codebook

Theme Theme (definition) Code Code (definition)

Understandings Interviewee explains his/her Awareness of audience Interviewee articulates his or her knowledge audience
of discourse understanding of discourse Awareness of communicative Interviewee articulates his or her knowledge
community community purposes communicative purposes
Understandings Interviewee explains his/her Knowledge of organizational Interviewee comments on organizational means to
of rhetorical understandings of how a means accomplish a rhetorical action
actions rhetorical action can be Knowledge of linguistic means Interviewee comments on linguistic means to
accomplished accomplish a rhetorical action
Challenges of Interviewee comments on the perceived difficulties Interviewee comments on what he or she perceives to
open-ended challenges arising in doing be the difficulties in doing open-ended tasks
tasks open-ended tasks Perceived reasons for Interviewee comments on what he or she perceives as
difficulties the reasons for the difficulties in doing open-ended
Interpretations of Interviewee offers Perceived affordances Interviewee comments on what he or she perceives to
close-ended interpretations of close-ended be the affordances of doing close-ended tasks
tasks tasks Perceived reasons for Interviewee comments on what he or she perceives to
affordances be the reasons for the affordances of doing close-ended

Author interview codebook

Theme Theme (definition) Code Code (definition)

Perspectives on AWG tasks Interviewee explains his or Affordances Interviewee comments on affordances of AWG tasks
for social science her views on use of AWG Constraints Interviewee comments on constraints of AWG tasks
students tasks for social science
Perspectives on rhetorical Interviewee explains his or Purposes for rhetorical Interviewee comments on pedagogical purposes for
consciousness-raising her views on rhetorical consciousness-raising rhetorical consciousness-raising
consciousness-raising Approaches to promote Interviewee comments on pedagogical approaches to
rhetorical consciousness- promote rhetorical consciousness-raising
Responses to students' Interviewee responds to Explanations of rationale Interviewee explains the rationale of open-ended tasks
perceived challenges of students' difficulties of Suggestions for use of Interviewee offers suggestions for using open-ended
open-ended tasks open-ended tasks open-ended tasks tasks in the classroom
Responses to students' Interviewee responds to Explanations of rationale Interviewee explains the rationale of close-ended tasks
perceptions of close- students' difficulties of Suggestions for use in the Interviewee offers suggestions for using close-ended
ended tasks close-ended tasks classroom tasks in the classroom


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A former Fulbright Scholar, Yushiang Jou holds an M.S. from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He teaches in the
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at National Taiwan University. His primary research interests have focused on second language academic
writing, instructed second language acquisition, and systemic functional linguistics.